A few months ago, we were all treated to the iPhone XR television commercial, “Color Flood,” a stirring mini-adventure, as well as another creative example of the sales potential of colour, music and movement. (See Catching a Heffalump, on this site.) The ad was not unlike most music videos, TV ads, super-hero movie franchises, etc., in its inventive use of colour. What set this ad apart was that it didn’t just depend on colour; it was about colour.

Colour is a pressing topic these days, and this is particularly true in architecture, because the potential for its use is almost limitless. In the not-too-distant past, we relied solely on paint to brighten our built environment. But today, construction, covering and surfacing materials are available in a complete spectrum of bright durable colours. Why shouldn’t our environments be as cheery as our television ads?

One problem is that architecture and colour live in separate worlds – one is real and tangible, the other perceptual. You can touch architecture and move around in it, but colour is abstract – a trick that relies on the ability of real materials to reflect and refract light. Le Corbusier claimed that architecture consists of “the play of masses brought together in light.” But if you turn off the lights, architecture still exists. Colour doesn’t.

Another problem is that architecture and colour have had a troubled relationship over the millennia. Ancient and classical civilizations used colour on their buildings with abandon, imagining that as the buildings aged, and the colour wore off, future generations would replace it. They didn’t. Centuries later, when these magnificent temples, monuments and sculptures were “rediscovered,” they were admired for their tasteful lack of colour. And this became the standard for classical beauty in Western cultures: permanent, pristine and colourless.

Over the years, colourful architecture has flourished from time to time, but at the beginning of the 20th century, it was virtually outlawed by austere new arts movements. Hoping to resurrect the glory of classical architecture, without the distractions of decoration, architecture was to be colourless once again.

In recent years, although new technologies have made it possible to use colour in buildings in many exciting ways, old beliefs are hard to dislodge. For many architects and builders, the old ways are still the best: “classical” whites and greys (the colours of stone), sympathetic earth tones (the colours of the soil) and organic hues (the colours of wood).

In our Summer 2019 issue, we present three essays that look at the subject from different angles. “Colour Notes” considers the use of colour in modern culture, with architecture as a notable exception. “Colour Blind” recounts architecture’s colourful and not-so-colourful history. “Why not Colour?” examines the amazing history of colour research and the possible reasons for the continuing reticence to use colour in architecture.

Find our Summer 2019 issue here